Just Don’t Get Arrested
Although she spent most of her early years in Virginia, mother was born in 1925 in Hannastown, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1773, it was the location of the first English court west of the Allegheny Mountains.
“The Big House,” whether it was the slave owners house, court house, jail, prison or the penitentiary; has always loomed ominously and large in the lives of people of African descent in this land.
By the time that I was born in that same county in 1951, the times had not really changed significantly for Black folks. Mothers and fathers still feared that their children would be swallowed up by the criminal justice system.
My parents, John and Thelma Terry, raised proud, self-actualized Black children able to “Speak Truth to Power.” I will always be grateful to the way that I was raised. I graduated from high school in 1969. The previous few years had been brutal in America: the insanity of Vietnam, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace running for President... tumultuous times.
Although not much had changed for the better for Black folks in America; slowly other aspects of the American culture were shifting. Amazingly the newspaper store in my corner of rural America started selling copies of The Village Voice! Through reading The Voice, I was introduced to a world of art, music, dance, and theater outside of the Appalachian Mountains that I knew so well. I also discovered that there were other women who didn’t want to be with men and some of them were Black. My mind was blown! I was encouraged and hopeful.
I was proud to be Black and to have descended from powerful and resilient people. It made no sense to be proud of one aspect of who I was and ashamed of another. Lack of integration of my Black and queer selves would have been spiritual and mental suicide. I wanted to live a full and vibrant life. I wanted to be “out.” But first I had to get out of those hills and to a city.
I moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to go to college and honestly to find other queer women. Find them, I did, at the Lesbian Coffee House on N. 3rd Street, Giovanni’s Room Bookstore, Miriam’s Tambourine women’s coffee house and bars in Center City and West Philadelphia.
Instantly I became immersed in social justice activities and queer politics. After all it was the early 70’s—the decade after Stonewall.
Often I was one of few Black women involved in queer political movements and one of few queers involved in broader social and economic justice movements. Instead of experiencing this as disjointed, I felt a powerful internal cohesion. I was putting my life together like a Faith Ringgold quilt; perhaps becoming more beautiful and strong for my future time as a Unitarian Universalist.
Not wanting my parents to find out about my newly blended Black/queer life on the 6 o’clock news; I took a deep breath and made “The Phone Call.” They asked a few questions and said that they loved me. My mother closed the conversation with “Just don’t get arrested.” I promised that I would not get arrested and got off the phone thinking, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Her concern was neither paranoid nor frivolous. Most black folks avoided and still avoid contact with the police. In 1970’s Philadelphia, Black folks got harassed and unjustly arrested by Commissioner Frank Rizzo’s Police Department. Gay and lesbian bars were routinely raided. Frequenting bars was dangerous. I was trying to keep the promise to my mother. But I also had disco fever.
What I loved most about living in Philadelphia was the vibrant Black and queer culture. I absorbed, like a sponge, the writings of brilliant, insightful, spiritual, political Black women: June Jordan, Donna Kate Rushin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston that new friends shared with me. The soundtrack of my life now included the delicious music of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, Castleberry and Dupree, and Nina Simone.
Like many other urban areas in America, the 70’s and 80’s brought painful losses due to HIV/AIDS. Our community in Philadelphia was hit hard. One such loss was brilliant writer, Joe Beam. I am grateful that a new generation is discovering Joe’s work.
During those times, we learned how to step up and get the work of revolution done. As an out Black queer woman, I have:
been in the center of many a protest
testified before elected representatives
spoke before thousands of people
run political campaigns
directed nonprofit organizations
trained lobbyists, organizers, and fundraisers
been appointed to local, state and national boards of queer organizations and
I didn’t get arrested.
For the last few years, I have been thrilled by the increasing numbers of proud outspoken Black gay women such as Lena Waithe. She was the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, Master of None.
As reported on the website DiversityInc:
“Actress, producer and screenwriter Lena Waithe, a gay Black woman, has not only made history in Hollywood, but continues to use her platform to encourage and inspire other Black LGBTQ people to be their authentic selves... Being a gay Black female is not a revolutionary act," she continued. ‘Being proud to be a gay Black female is.’"
—'Being Proud to Be a Gay Black Female' Is a Revolutionary Act, Says Lena Waithe
May we all be our true revolutionary selves!